The news that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have produced a draft agreement — okayed "in principle" by the Iranians, as well as the Western powers — puts a happy face on a crisis that, in reality, shows no signs of abating.
Under the terms of the agreement, Iran will ship 80% of its enriched uranium abroad, to Russia, for further enrichment in order to convert it for medical purposes. This will give the international community a year — the time it would take Iran to replace it — to reach a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which the regime claims exists solely for peaceful purposes. This, by the way, is Iran’s right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) — a right that Israel, for one, is having none of, given defense minister Ehud Barak’s response to the draft. Tehran, he avers, must stop all enrichment — nothing less will satisfy the Israelis.
Israel’s hysteria over this question is pure theatrics, as it will shortly have a very effective missile defense, and, in any case, the Jewish state outclasses militarily any conceivable combination of regional rivals. As Thomas P.M. Barnett put it in Esquire:
"After almost a quarter-century of quiet cooperation with the Americans, Israel is now on the verge of perfecting a multi-layered missile-defense shield that protects against short-range rockets coming out of southern Lebanon and Gaza, plus anything Iran can toss its way. Not only will Israel remain on the map following a potential first strike, it’ll have second-strike capabilities secure enough to wipe off the map any fantasy-league roster of neighboring Islamic regimes you care to name.
"Iran may be just getting on the playing field, but Israel will remain — for the foreseeable future — the only team that can professionally compete on both sides of the ball."
Israel’s campaign to keep Iran from going nuclear is all about maintaining its own nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, as the Iranians pointed out at a secret conference held in Cairo, under the auspices of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), at which both Israeli and Iranian delegates were present. Ha’aretz reports:
"The exchanges between the Iranian and Israeli representatives took place within three panel sessions, each dealing with one of the issues with which the ICNND is concerned – declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, preventing nuclear proliferation in the region and matters of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The two did not meet or shake hands outside the sessions. In one of the discussions, [Iranian ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar] Soltanieh directly asked Zafary-Odiz – and eyewitnesses say he spoke in an impassioned voice, ‘Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons?’ Zafary-Odiz smiled, but did not respond."
This is the key issue, and one that is not likely to be resolved any time soon: as long as Israel refuses to even acknowledge its possession of weapons of mass destruction, let alone engage in meaningful disarmament talks, tensions in the region are likely to remain high. The Israelis have so far managed to avoid facing the issue squarely, but the mere fact that the US is engaging with Iran opens the door — if only a crack — to the prospect of Tel Aviv having to eventually come clean.
Israel and its defenders in this country are appalled at such a prospect, for this would be the implementation, in terms of actual policy, of the dreaded "moral equivalence," which Israel’s amen corner in the US is so adamantly against. Israel, we are told, is not on the same moral and civilizational plane as its Arab and Persian neighbors: Tel Aviv alone can be trusted to do the right thing. This position, however, will be increasingly hard to credibly maintain if and when the issue of Israel’s status as a nuclear rogue comes to the fore. Tel Aviv’s intransigence is based on the realization that any concessions to Iran constitute a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies the scary prospect of signing the NPT — which Israel has so far adamantly refused to do — and actually living in peace with its neighbors.
And so while the core issue — Israel’s nuclear monopoly — that roils the Middle East is not even up for discussion, events are moving swiftly along another track, and the news is not good. The October 18 terrorist attack in Iranian Baluchistan, which killed 42 people — including Brig. Gen. Nourali Shoushtari, deputy commander of the IRGC’s ground forces — was swiftly claimed by the Jundallah insurgents: it’s no coincidence that the attack came on the day the nuclear talks were scheduled to open.
Jundallah is a Sunni militant group that claims it is fighting for autonomy in Baluchistan, a predominantly Sunni province of Iran. In reality, it is a CIA front group that has been viciously attacking civilians and is allied with Al Qaeda. According to credible reports by Seymour Hersh, ABC News, and the Telegraph, Jundallah has received support, including funding, from the US and the government of Pakistan. The group is also active in the Pakistani regions of Baluchistan, apparently operating with impunity. Dick Cheney, on a visit to Pakistan, referred to Jundallah as a "guerrilla group," giving it somewhat more legitimacy than perhaps a terrorist group deserves.
With one hand, the US holds out the promise of negotiations and the prospect of détente, and with the other it delivers a deadly blow, threatening to destabilize the restive non-Persian provinces ruled by Tehran. Talk — and terrorism: the two faces of US policy in the region. Which is the true face?
The US ship of state is like a massive ocean liner, one with innumerable rooms and warrens. It’s quite possible that one section of the ship is moving in one direction, while another is quietly but determinedly pulling in the other direction. Policies framed and implemented during the previous administration — the funding and support to Jundallah — are no doubt still ongoing, right along with the new diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, the two are not necessarily contradictory: putting pressure on Tehran through attacks such as those carried out by Jundallah is one way to keep the Iranian regime off balance, and make them more amenable to compromise at the negotiating table.
In any case, we are walking a tightrope in simultaneously engaging with, and terrorizing, the Iranians: one misstep, and we are likely to fall into yet another Middle Eastern quagmire, one we will no doubt come to regret.
The negotiations with Tehran, while a good sign, are likely to run into more than one unforeseen obstacle — including the very powerful Israel lobby. The Lobby’s influence in President Obama’s own party, and its ability to outflank any peace proposals in the US Congress — which is already considering at least one major new sanctions bill — is the main roadblock to peace in the Middle East.
No matter how good the intentions of President Obama, and in spite of his attempts to avoid war with Iran — which would push oil prices beyond the breaking point and plunge our economy into chaos — in the end a military conflict with Iran may be unavoidable. The recent success of the engagement process buys the peace movement valuable time, however, if the agreement goes through without a hitch — and that is reason for restrained optimism. Is far too early, however, to break out the champagne.